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Preparation is key!

As some of you might know, Catherine and I are working closely with a local group who are exploring the history and archaeology of a small farmstead. The project is called Peeling Back the Layers and you can read our earlier post here. The next major step is excavation, and although we are not lifting any turf until June 20th, now is the time when we have to think seriously about where we want to excavate and why.


The historical records refer to this field as Whitle Bank, although we all call it The Cellar Field!

We’ve been mulling over the results of the various surveys and while there have been some surprises, they have helped us focus on some key areas for the next phase. One unwitting outcome of spending a lot of time in the field, quite literally on this occasion, is that you become attuned to the subtleties of the landscape. Take the field where we did a tape and offset survey. It wasn’t until I had spent days walking up and down, changing directions and in ever-changing light, that I began to appreciate how the many breaks of slope, changes in vegetation and updates from the owners as to what work they had done over 30 odd years that the story of the ‘field’ started to fall into place. The same thing is now happening with the field next-door, where there is something of a mystery afoot!


The mystery earthwork, about 1 metre wide.

The surveys so far have included one known as ‘Lidar’ (Light Detection and Ranging) which is in effect an airborne laser survey that picks up minor changes in ground level. With some clever software, objects such as trees and buildings can be ‘removed’ leaving you with what can be a really revealing picture of the landscape. One of the things which became apparent was that a small earthwork was potentially quite a bit bigger than at first sight. The earthwork is about one metre wide and is approximately 70m long with a small break and a dog-leg at that point. Curious, I thought, and the question of what this feature is was fomenting . . .

Now, most of the story of Under Whitle comes to us from the historic period and not that which I am most familiar – prehistory. This of course means there is some catching-up to do on a range of subjects including farming practices, houses and material culture: the things people used. Archaeology is nothing without the things that people used!

The project is also exploring the historical records of a number of archives, both locally and nationally, to build up a picture of who lived here, and hopefully, where they lived. For example, there is a tithe map dating to the mid-19th century which shows a number of buildings but these are not necessarily houses. If the records are to believed then people have been living there since the 13th century, but currently there is only a single farmhouse, so the question is where were people living in the past?

Preparation is the key to success they say, and it is my task now to plan where to excavate in the summer. I will not excavating on my own of course, the project now has well over 50 volunteers signed up and local schools are also visiting and taking part in several ways. So in discussion with Catherine, we’ll be planning how to assess their skills, how we can best provide them with new ones if necessary and how we can work as a team to get to grips with what promises to be an intense period of work.

I’ll be guided by the answers to the questions raised here, but will also consider what else might add to the story. It may be useful for example, to gather samples of soil for analysis. This can tell us about the soil type, what it has been used for, what plants have grown and what organisms have found their way into the record. It will be by integrating history, archaeology and more that a fuller picture emerges. So the quest is on to establish what this earthwork might be, where are the remains of houses where the people lived and how these fit in with the story of Under Whitle.


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